The Millennial Burnout Conversation Also Applies to Gamers Me

New year, new you. I’m still me. 

Cameron Kunzelman beckoned in 2019 with a paean to all the games. Specifically, how it’s a strain to play so many of them, but he carries on because he gosh darn loves ‘em – and it’s his job. And I can sympathise with him, I really can. Whether it’s true or just my imagination, big games seem to keep getting bigger (and longer), and smaller games that are really, really good come out far more often. So where’s the time to play them all?

In my case, there isn’t. But over the last few years I’ve developed quite a canny strategy for dealing with this:
  1. Buy a game
  2. Play the game
  3. Become distracted by life events or another game
  4. Never play the game again
I rarely finish games now I’m in my late twenties because it always feels like there’s something else I should be doing. Not necessarily something better, just other. Painting my bathroom took over a week for various unforeseen technical reasons. Seven coats of paint and some spot sanding later and now it’s a lovely and inoffensive shade of duck egg blue. (Heed this: however much you want to be a bit kooky with tone and shade in a small bathroom, do not do it. Small bathrooms need to be light and airy to maintain their ambience, even if that means they must also be very pedestrian to look at.)

I’m happy that my bathroom looks nice now. I’d been putting off painting it for a few years, and now it’s done I’ll be able to forget all about it for another handful. Peace of mind in three tins of paint, a dozen metres of masking tape, two rollers, four brushes and a damp rag. As simple and nurturing a recipe as chicken soup for the soul.

But what of the games? I imagine Cameron’s ‘gamer burnout’ sits in the pit of his stomach at times, keeping him awake at night as the colours flash before his dilated pupils, restless as they surely are behind his heavy eyelids. I have been there too, a long time ago. But the inverse ailment is equally damaging. To play some of the games but never enough of them, and dart between them like an indecisive puppy brings with it great anxiety. Never finishing anything you start, never seeing out stories, never hitting level caps; that is not good for you.

Like Cam, I love games. I have played them for almost all of my life and found great joy in following their artistic and technological development. I am still excited when I play most of them for the first time, awestruck that I’m lucky enough to be setting off on yet another adventure. But as someone with a full-time job outside of games, and friends and family who need regular attention lest they abandon me, I rarely have the time to see any of those adventures out.

I fall off games for a couple of main reasons. With something like Hollow Knight, I just lose patience. I liked a lot of what it did with its worldbuilding and tone but hated actually playing it. I think it is a bad implementation and fundamental misreading of the Soulsborne mechanics, and a gatekeepy travesty too enamoured with its core audience to be worth my time. All it needed was an easy mode.

I don’t encounter this scenario very often though. Mostly, I’ll play a game up until a certain point and then just stop. It’s as if a switch flips in my head and I suddenly realise I’m full. I do this with food all the time. Bloodborne had me from the very beginning and I played it religiously for tens of hours. One day, not hugely far from the end, I decided I’d got enough out of the experience and that it was time for something new. It’s still sat there on my PlayStation, waiting for me to go back to it. More likely, it’ll survive one more disk drive cull before being uninstalled for a fresh crop of games I’ll never finish either.

This pattern does make me genuinely a bit sad. Because I can’t tell whether I ever truly have my fill, or if somewhere unconsciously I just know it’s time to move on. I want to experience as much as possible, but unlike Cameron, I cannot simply play more. I haven’t the time or the energy or even, if I’m being honest, the inclination.

Painting my bathroom will always be more important than finishing a game because that, it turns out, is who I am. And I think I’m slowly beginning to accept that and leave the anxiety of my own burnout behind. Until I’ve finished processing this, though, my life with games will continue to be an unsatisfying road movie of incomplete vignettes and plot strands that don’t come together by the end – because there never is one, and there probably won’t ever be.